Update on Political Fact-Check Websites
Paula J. Hane
Posted On March 1, 2012
As I write this, the U.S. is in the midst of a hotly contested GOP presidential primary. The countdown to “Super Tuesday” is 6 days, and the countdown to the election is 251 days. Some days, I think I’ve just had enough election news. It’s exhausting for a voting individual to examine all the claims and statements made by the candidates. How do we keep up with who said what and check to see if it contradicts their earlier statements or twists the facts/statistics? Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see an article that questions or outright refutes something said in a speech or debate. But which sites do we believe?
I last wrote about political fact-check sites for the October 2007 NewsLink Spotlight, 13 months before the 2008 presidential election. It has proven to be the most read article on our site, prompting me to revisit the topic now.
The Fact Checker
At that time, I wrote about the newly launched site called The Fact Checker from The Washington Post Co. I was pleased to see the site has recently been revived—and you can even search the archives back to 2007. It was founded by Washington Post writer Michael Dobbs and is now headed up by columnist and blogger Glenn Kessler, who has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety, and Wall Street. While in 2008, it focused just on the presidential campaign, Kessler says, “I take a much broader approach—I’ll write about what people say in Congress. I’ll write about what diplomats might say.”
Readers are still encouraged to send in statements to fact check and can now easily tweet them with #FactCheckThis. The site aims to provide “The Truth Behind the Rhetoric.” The site still awards “Pinocchios” to reflect problems with a statement and a “Geppetto” checkmark when the statement is deemed correct.
[On January 15, 2012, C-Span aired a 1-hour interview with Kessler about the Fact Checker column and his life and career.]
PolitiFact.com is a project of the Tampa Bay Times and its partner news organizations “to help you find the truth in politics.” Bill Adair is the editor of PolitiFact and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Tampa Bay Times, formerly the St. Petersburg Times. He has worked in Washington since 1997 and has covered Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, national politics, and aviation safety. PolitiFact won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for its coverage of the 2008 election.
Every day, reporters and researchers examine statements by members of Congress, state legislators, governors, mayors, the president, cabinet secretaries, lobbyists, people who testify before Congress, and anyone else who speaks up in American politics. “We research their statements and then rate the accuracy on our Truth-O-Meter–-True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, and False. The most ridiculous falsehoods get our lowest rating, Pants on Fire.”
I particularly like to browse the list of chain emails making their way around the internet. For example, one going around warns of a Medicare premium increase due to “Obamacare” legislation. After dissecting the considerable fine print and the unproven allegations, PolitiFact.com rated its claims Pants on Fire.
The PolitiFact.com site also links to some state fact-checking resources. For example, PolitiFact Texas is a partnership of the Austin American-Statesman and PolitiFact.com. It offers a helpful location browse feature that lets you focus by city. PolitiFact New Jersey is a partnership of
The Star-Ledger based in Newark and PolitiFact.com.
FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Brooks Jackson is a journalist who has covered Washington and national politics since 1970, reporting in turn for the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, and CNN. He joined the Annenberg Public Policy Center in 2003 and launched FactCheck.org in December of that year. The site’s mission is to be a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. It has not accepted any funds from corporations, unions, partisan organizations, or advocacy groups. In 2010, it began accepting donations from individual members of the public for the first time, and discloses the identity of donors giving $1,000 or more.
In addition to the expected coverage of the President’s State of the Union Address, debate claims, and advertising spin, the site encourages readers to write in with questions. In the FactCheck Mailbag it features the weekly email it receives. You can search and browse the archives from 2003.
Peggy Garvin, a regular contributor for NewsBreaks and senior contributing editor to DocuTicker, comments on the difficult task these sites have. “In the U.S., FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com become more and more popular with each contentious national election. Reading the judgments they render on politicians’ statements is an excellent way to learn how the facts can be twisted and untwisted in just about any field. Factcheck.org replies to major criticism and praise in its weekly Mailbag feature. Fact checking is not an easy business, as the critical mail confirms. The line between subjective and objective can be thin. Factcheck.org can irk readers (including me, occasionally) when it strays from checking the facts to interpreting intentions.”
People looking for analysis and fact checking on a statement or an issue would be best served by looking at multiple fact-check sites and comparing the sources that are cited. In a January 2012 interview, Kessler admitted that The Fact Checker gets criticized both from the left and right. He also says the sites occasionally differ in their conclusions.
But I—if—and we sometimes get a little ruffled when we come to different conclusions, which this happens on an occasional basis. But generally we tend to see eye-to-eye on things. And they do very good work. My—my column is a bit more—it’s mostly me and my assistant and I will edit his things. It’s a bit more of a personal edge—a bit more of a personality than I think what they do. On the other hand, they—PolitiFact may have two dozen people around the country doing this, so they produce much more than what I can do, which is at least one column a day.
For a lighter take on the political scene, check out FlackCheck.org, a video-based counterpart to FactCheck.org. FlackCheck.org uses parody and humor to debunk false political advertising, poke fun at extreme language, and hold the media accountable for their reporting on political campaigns.